High Treason, Court of Criminal Appeal: the Trial of Sir Roger Casement 1916

  • About the work
    Sir Roger Casement, an Irish-born British diplomat, was convicted of high treason on 29 June 1916 and sentenced to death. His appeal against the death sentence, which forms the subject of this painting by Sir John Lavery, was overturned, and Casement was hanged on 3 August 1916 at Pentonville Prison.

    In April of that year, three days before the Easter Rising and at the height of the First World War, Casement had been arrested at Banna Strand in Co. Kerry after disembarking from a German submarine. He had been seeking support for Irish independence in Germany, and had spent time among Irish prisoners of war in an attempt to recruit for a rebel army.

    Lavery may have been commissioned to execute this work by the Judge, Sir Charles Darling, whose portrait he had already painted. The artist was seated in the jury box, directly opposite the defendant, for this purpose. A detailed oil sketch of the scene is in the collection of the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin. Very little appears to have changed in the process of working the sketch up into the final painting, suggesting Lavery’s aim of accurately recording the legal proceedings. Certain details have been added, notably the streak of light that illuminates the defendant sitting in the dock. As in the sketch, Casement occupies the centre of the canvas in the final painting, but his head is turned directly to us in a more defiant and confrontational pose.

    Lavery emphasises the elevated position of the judges dressed in vibrant red gowns to the left of the scene. In contrast, the mass of sombre colour on the right hand side is interrupted only by two small red books. The central shaft of light divides the composition diagonally, with every line of recession leading our eyes back towards the defendant. Although these formal painting devices reflect Lavery’s sense of place in the courtroom, they reveal also his use of compositional and aesthetic choices to capture the tension and drama of a moment in history.
  • About the artist
    John Lavery, son of a Belfast publican, was orphaned at a young age. He lived with relatives and was apprenticed to a Belfast photographer, but later enrolled at the Haldane Academy, Glasgow. After his Glasgow studio burnt down, insurance money funded his studies at Heatherley’s in London and the Atelier Julian, Paris. He later worked at Grez-sur-Loing, where he helped form the Glasgow Boys. From 1885, he painted middle-class leisure pursuits and his later career was as a royal portraitist. In 1890 he married Kathleen McDermott, who died after giving birth to daughter, Eileen. In 1904 he married American Hazel Martyn, but both Hazel and Eileen died in 1935. Lavery then moved to Hollywood to paint celebrities, before retiring to Ireland.
  • Explore
    Casement, Roger DavidDarling, Charles John, 1st Baron DarlingAtkin, James Richard, Baron AtkinLawrence, Alfred Tristram, 1st Baron TrevethinScrutton, Sir Thomas EdwardBray, Sir Reginald MoreSimon, John Allsebrook, 1st Viscount SimonParry, Gertrude (née Bannister)McNeill, AdaDuffy, George GavanJones, Sir Thomas ArtemusMorgan, John HartmanSullivan, Alexander MartinHumphreys, Sir Travers ChristmasBodkin, Sir Archibald HenrySmith, Frederick Edwin, 1st Earl of BirkenheadCave, George, Viscount CaveDoyle, Michael FrancisKershaw, Sir Leonard WilliamDuffy, Maragaret Gavan (née Sullivan)Stephenson, Sir GuyBranson, Sir George Arthur Harwin
    Materials & Techniques
    canvas, oil, oil painting
  • Details
    High Treason, Court of Criminal Appeal: the Trial of Sir Roger Casement 1916
    Oil on canvas
    height: 194.50 cm, width: 302.50 cm
    Bequeathed by the artist, 1941
    Bequeathed by the artist to the Royal Courts of Justice, London, in 1941
    GAC number